Picture the land where the farmers market stands in downtown Traverse City, across from West Grand Traverse Bay. The market sits on parkland. In 1986, on that parkland, a developer wanted to build a mall with a seven-story parking deck. For the grand total of $1, the Traverse City Commission gave the developer all that parkland on Grandview Parkway between Union Street and Cass Street.
My clients filed a lawsuit to stop the parkland giveaway. Then-Judge Mort Forster examined the deed and said, yes, it is parkland. He looked at the City Charter and said, yes, the Charter requires a vote before selling parkland. He stopped the $1 “sale.” City residents then voted not to sell. That was 1986.
Since then, during 35-plus years of continuous downtown development, you could count the number of land use lawsuits on one hand. We stopped a Pine Street project because the City violated its own Special Land Use Permit rules. We stopped a Hall Street project because it violated the City Charter height limit. We stopped the FishPass project because it is on parkland and a vote is required to turn Union Street Dam Park into a research station. We stopped a State Street development because, under the City Charter, a vote is required to build above 60 feet.
On about one hand, you could count the number of lawsuits in the past 35 years. Each of them asked the court to make City Hall respect the zoning code and the City Charter. None of those lawsuits asked the court to stop development. “Give people the right to vote” was the ongoing request. And guess what? Each time we won, and each time city residents voted to keep parkland.
The judges who decided those lawsuits — Mort Forster, Philip E. Rodgers Jr. and Thomas G. Power — repeated the same principle: The zoning code and charter are clear, and City Hall must follow the rules.
A recent Record-Eagle forum writer protested that lawsuits have made it “harder to maintain our status as the economic driver of northern Michigan.” Really? Has she read any of the judges’ rulings? If City Hall follows the zoning code and City Charter, how does that make it “harder” to drive our economy?
City Hall and its business lobby (the Downtown Development Authority) and the Chamber of Commerce (Traverse Connect) have become increasingly political and pro-development. The DDA diverts tax dollars to subsidize luxury condos, Traverse Connect backs pro-development commission candidates, and the City bends the rules to assist developers.
Preservationist lawsuits have — a handful of times in 35-plus years — saved City Hall from itself. We have maintained city parkland — the “Pure Michigan” part of Traverse City. We have maintained the zoning code and the City Charter. Nothing is ”harder” than maintaining this City’s character, scale, and natural beauty, and we have worked for free to do it. In a world obsessed with parking decks, luxury condos and mythical “workplace housing” — always promised and never delivered — we preservationists have protected residents’ rights.
About the author: Grant Parsons, a native of Traverse City and a lawyer, has represented preservationists with other lawyers on a pro bono basis for decades.